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What if Judge Kavanaugh, Dr. Ford, and Senator Feinstein Were Your Employees?

Things Every Manager Needs to Learn from the Kavanaugh Hearings.

Unless you’ve been living on a tropical island, with no internet access and an unlimited supply of refreshing drinks, you’re aware of Christina Blasey Ford’s accusations against Supreme Court Nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

Regardless of what you think of these accusations, Kavanaugh’s nomination, or the general state of the political world, this debacle reminds business leaders of what can happen if we don’t take sexual harassment claims very seriously. So, set your politics aside and let’s learn from this.

Imagine that this isn’t political and instead, that this is a corporation where you are the CEO. If Senator Feinstein were a manager, and Ford and Kavanaugh were both your employees, how would you react? What would you need to do differently?

As the CEO, these are the actions you should take:

In a business setting, Feinstein should be fired.

Senator Feinstein received information regarding Ford’s accusations months before releasing it to the rest of the committee (your management team). She stated she did so to protect Ford. That sounds nice, but it’s not something you can allow.

If an employee complains of sexual harassment, the second someone in authority (a manager, or an HR person) knows about it, liability attaches. Your company is now responsible if you do not act.

While some people will not want you to act, and just want a shoulder to cry on, once someone says, “I’ve been sexually harassed,” you need to begin an investigation. In a business setting, Feinstein would need to inform whoever was responsible for the investigating. That’s usually the Human Resources Department. Every manager needs to be trained. Postponing or attempting an investigation on your own is grounds for termination.

Why so stark? Because it is dangerous for the business. Postponing or forgoing a formal investigation allows harassment to continue. Or it makes a manager draw unfounded conclusions. It also increases the company’s legal liabilities.

Investigate allegations from a position of neutrality.

The Senate is probably the organization least qualified to conduct a neutral investigation. In business environments, we know each other because we work together. And we have opinions, but we don’t generally have the hatred that politicians tend to have with one another.

These things are fine, but when it comes to a sexual harassment accusation, it’s critical that your investigator acts from a neutral position. She gathers facts. She’s not there to comfort the accuser nor confront the accused.

Sometimes, this is impossible. For instance, if the HR manager is investigating a senior executive who has hire/fire/budge power over her department, she can’t be neutral. If she’s best friends with the accuser, she can’t look at the situation in an unbiased way.

In these situations, you need to hire an outside investigator. Yes, this costs money. It costs less money than losing a lawsuit when you botch the investigation.

As a CEO, consider the biggest lessons from the past year of #Metoo headlines.

No one is too big to fail.

If you look at many of the recent big name sexual harassers -- like Matt Lauer and Les Moonves -- you see that businesses made decisions to overlook their bad behavior. They brought in the money. Therefore, it was easier to pay off the complainers and cover up the action.

This type of attitude is not acceptable. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you sexually harass someone at work, you are in trouble.

Likewise, we don't believe all women. We don't believe all men. We don't believe all executives. There is not a single group or person that deserves to have their word taken at face value. Accuser or accused, it’s the same. We don't believe anyone without an investigation. Anyone saying otherwise is not looking at the evidence at hand.

One of the things that many people are pointing out is that the Kavanaugh hearings are not criminal ones but a job interview and that we don’t have to follow due process when it comes to hiring and firing. This is technically true, but it is also a bad idea to ignore.

While, most likely, your employees are at-will and can be fired at any time, if you start firing anyone who is accused of harassment (or other bad behavior) without a proper investigation and evidence, you set yourself up for a discrimination claim if more men are accused than women or vice versa. Plus, this behavior tells people that if they don’t like their boss, merely say, “Bob did X,” and he’s out the door.

In other words, we don’t skip the investigations and claim that you are exercising your rights as an at-will employer. You don’t have to have proof that meets a criminal court standard (beyond a reasonable doubt), but you do need to back-up your decision.

Remember, every decision you make during a sexual harassment investigation may need to be defended, under oath, in court. Don’t risk it with sloppy work.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. You can read her blog, Evil HR Lady, or follower her on Twitter @realevilhrlady